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Brain-Eating Amoeba: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Survival

What are risk factors for Naegleria fowleri infection?

The source of nearly all of the Naegleria fowleri infections reported since 1962 in the U.S. has been exposure to untreated freshwater during the summer. Activities that pose a risk include submerging the head, jumping feet first, diving, and sports that pull a person behind a boat, like wakeboarding, tubing, and water skiing. Water sources include freshwater lakes, rivers, drainage ditches, and ponds. Other freshwater sources have included hot springs, poorly chlorinated swimming pools and water parks, untreated well water, water heaters, neti pots, hose water, and warm water discharge from power plants.

Cases have historically occurred in the South, primarily Florida and Texas. In recent years, cases have been reported as far north as Minnesota, Maryland, Lake Havasu City in Arizona, Los Angeles in California, and other sites. Climate change is thought to be playing a role in its spread.

Of the 37 cases reported from 2005 to 2015, 33 people acquired PAM from recreational exposure to freshwater, three from using a neti pot with contaminated tap water, and one from playing on a hose-fed Slip ‘N Slide toy. Most patients are young, healthy, and active, between 10-14 years of age. The full range of ages is 5-19.

Neti pots are sinus irrigation systems that are designed to flush water deep into the nasal cavity. They are often successfully used by allergy and sinus sufferers. Many people are not aware that public drinking water is not tested for amebae and is only chlorinated enough to kill some diarrhea-causing bacteria; drinking water is not sterile and contains a living ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and amebae. These are usually harmless but occasionally are not. Higher levels of chlorine are needed to kill most infection-causing parasites like ameba and other protozoa. In addition, private water cisterns and water storage tanks may pose a risk.

In parts of the world where chlorination is poor, nasal rinsing may be used to purify the body before prayer — an act called ritual ablution. In Pakistan, recent years have seen reports of 10-15 cases per year of PAM, and chlorination of drinking water or pools has been lax.

It is not possible to give an accurate estimate of invasive Naegleria fowleri infection compared to the many more probable exposures. However, it is easy to consider that cases are missed because health professionals lack awareness, misdiagnosis or trouble is making a diagnosis before death, or there is a lack of diagnosis because autopsy is not routinely performed. Few medical situations require a legally mandatory autopsy by the medical examiner, and many facilities don’t do them anymore. Autopsies are not covered by insurance and cost up to $5,000. Most death certificates are signed by a doctor based on the best guess. Underreporting may occur because there is no mandatory federal reporting, and states differ in the requirement to report diseases related to amebae.

Other amebae have been transmitted by the transplanted tissue, but Naegleria fowleri has not caused disease. Between 1995 and 2012, 21 organs have been transplanted from individuals who died from PAM; however, no cases of transplant-related PAM have been recorded, which is reassuring. The risk is not zero, because Naegleria can spread in the blood to other organs, probably when the blood-brain barrier has been destroyed.

Swallowing the ameba has not been associated with infection. Properly chlorinated and maintained recreational water systems or seawater have not been associated with infection.

Humidifiers or vaporizers do not pose a risk; droplets produced by these devices are very small and cannot carry an ameba or cyst without the organism drying out.

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